Good Preparation and a Good Hunt Helped Me Overcome a Lifelong Fear of Bears
As the sun rises earlier and sets later, the temperatures climb above zero, and the winter landscape gives way to spring, many animals are preparing to wake up from hibernation. Some, like the bears, have internal clocks letting them know when to go into hibernation and when to emerge from their dens to search for food.
Growing up, I was terrified of bears. I always believed them to be unpredictable and liable to strike without warning, which was how they attacked in my nightmares. And so, in the spring of 2019, I had to dig deep, find the courage, and educate myself to take on my first-ever bear hunt.
This was about so much more than pursuing a bear. I knew that if I could successfully overcome my long- standing terror, I could pull strength from the hunt to work through other challenges in my life. This included caring for a chronically ill family member which had left me feeling helpless. To really confront my fears, I decided to hunt with a bow rather than a gun. With a rifle, you can harvest your quarry from more than 100 yards away. With a bow, the bear would need to be within 20 yards.
There was plenty of work to do to get ready. In 2018, I purchased my first bow, a Hoyt Power Max, and I paired it with Victory Vap 166 Gamer arrows. I dedicated countless weeks practicing and preparing for different shooting situations. I paid particular attention to mental toughness—ignoring distractions, calming my nerves, staying focused. I reviewed the Alberta Guide to Hunting Regulations regarding black bear hunts. I talked to other hunters about their experiences. I downloaded numerous online videos and listened to podcasts, preparing for the spring bear I hoped to harvest.
Balance is essential to sustaining biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem, and bear hunting can help keep predator numbers down. Bears are omnivores, and while they mainly feed on plant-based food sources, these nutrients are in short supply in the early spring months. This is when bears are understandably hungry. This is when they can be found preying on young ungulate populations like deer, moose, elk, and livestock, too.
My hunting grounds are in the Lakeland region’s boreal forest, about a three-hour drive from my home. I had seen bear tracks, scat, long, deep scrapes on trees, and fur caught on the fence wire in past years. I also had captured many black bears on my SPYPOINT Link-S trail cameras. Based on these findings, I set up two different bait stations, each having two barrels: protein and oats in one; honey, molasses, and baked goods in the other.
Using the Wind
The priority of scent control is wind management. Since bears have one of the best senses of smell of any animal, knowing which direction the wind is blowing is especially important during a hunt. So, I assembled two tree stands, one based on the prevailing wind pattern in my area, and the second as an option if the wind changed. I set my stands about 16 to 20 yards from the bait barrels. This gave me a clear shot and a broad view of my hunting area. After all the work and preparation, I was ready to push my limits, set my anxieties aside, and walk into my first bear hunt.
The first, second, and third weeks went by without a single bear showing up on my trail cameras. With no markings, scat, or tracks, I could not help but wonder if I had the right bait or if the bears had moved out of the area. On a positive note, the first three weeks provided cost savings, as I did not have to top up my bait barrels.
Then, my phone notified me that my first bears had walked into the west bait station. By the middle of May, with temperatures hitting above 20C (68F), the bears were continuously running the two bait stations. It was hard work keeping up with their food demand. They emptied the barrels every three days.
With the help of my trail cameras, I gathered information on the bears’ behaviors, including noting which bears were hitting the east and west baits, their frequency, and the status of the food in the barrels.
The pictures from my cameras were syncing directly to my phone. That allowed me to leave the area undisturbed apart from when I was topping up the baits. From all the pictures I saw, two bears caught my attention. One was a beautiful, blonde-colored black bear, and the other was an older, more mature bear. I was beginning to enjoy the anticipation of sitting 20 feet in the air and pushing through my fears for the opportunity to harvest one of these two bears.
The sky was a vibrant blue and the afternoon sun blazed down on me as I changed into my hunting gear and inspected my bow. I walked through the trees to the bait station, listening intently to every sound. The forest is a playground with squirrels chasing one another, songbirds flying amongst the branches, and frogs croaking in the nearby pond. My attention shifted to the beams of sunlight shining through the gaps in the forest’s canopy, adding life to the dead leaves on the ground.
There They Are
My body was as tight as my bowstring as I climbed my tree stand. The first few hours were spent watching. The wooded area was alive. Then, one by one, the sounds disappeared, and the forest became still. I scanned the area. I could hear the crunch of footprints make contact with the hard ground. I spotted two unfamiliar black bears approaching, noses in the air, smelling the aroma of the protein and sugary sweetness. The bears began pushing the bait barrels until some of the food spilled on the ground. Eager to eat, the bears lay down to enjoy their meal.
Almost without warning, the boar got up and walked towards my stand, dug his claws into the tree, and shimmied up within seconds, pausing with his nose under the grate my feet were resting on. I had to keep my mind calm and my body focused, as I didn’t want to jeopardize the remainder of my hunt. With a quick shot of bear spray, down the tree he went and scurried back to the bait station.
My heart rate had barely subsided when, within an hour, the sow also strutted from the protein barrel towards my tree with confidence like the sun rising. I was on the edge of my stand, wondering about her next move. She walked around the back of the tree, sunk her razor-sharp claws in and without hesitation, climbed.
I pulled out my bear repellent and with a squeeze of the trigger, down she went. I was shaken and fearful, but I knew I didn’t have time to be scared. I was in bear territory and on my own. My body felt weak. I slowed my breathing down and refocused. I was too shaken to continue hunting, but I would spend the remainder of the day learning, watching, and listening to the bears’ behaviors.
A Day on Edge
The following day was tough. I was anxious and on edge from my interactions with the bears the day before, but I leaned heavily on my determination and courage to return to the tree stand. I had set a goal, and if I quit, I knew I would be letting myself down.
I drove to my hunting area at 1 p.m. There was a strong west wind, perfect for my setup, as my stand was on the east side of the bait. As I began climbing my ladder, I heard three quick barks. I looked out, and 13 yards to the north was a bear sitting on its haunches, letting me know he was agitated; I was in his area.
I quickly settled into my tree stand, hoping the bears would not pick up my scent, consider me a further threat, and leave. To my relief, the same bears as the day before sauntered from the north from a tree-covered area to the bait station. They tipped the barrel over, reaching into the small 10-by-10-centimeter hole with their paws. They were pulling out more sweets with honey and eating, playing, and interacting with each other like kids in a schoolyard. But I was holding out for the blonde and the mature black bear.
Around 5 p.m., the bears left the area and the forest became quiet. I heard a crack echo in the distance. I scanned the wooded area looking for any movement and questioning if this could be my target bear. Adrenaline began to run through my veins, and I slowly stood up in anticipation.
Minutes went by, feeling like hours. My heart began to pound, and my hands were starting to sweat when out from under the spruce trees wandered one of the bears I was hoping to see. This mature black bear stopped to sniff the air on his way to the bait station, going straight for the protein and oats. While the food supply occupied the adult boar, I was able to stop my legs from shaking and wait for the perfect shot.
All the practicing to quiet my mind, calm my body and control my breathing paid off. The black bear turned and moved towards the other barrel filled with sweets. He paused, broadside 16 yards from me, to sniff the air again.
Time stood still; I could not hear the rustling of the leaves or the birdsong in the distance. It was as if everything blurred except for the bear. I pulled back my bow. The bear took a step and I released my arrow. The thump of the broadhead, the bolt of the bear, and the sounds of the forest came back alive. He ran 30 yards. Then, I heard the death moan.
I sat in my tree stand, exhilaration mounting as I realized I had just filled my first bear tag. The animal that I had feared most of my life was now a part of my hunting memories.
I climbed down, step by step, still nervous, watching for the other bears to return. I walked to my bear, took a knee, and placed my hand on his body, expressing thanks for the harvest.